The Long Psalms

The long psalms have been a curiosity to me ever since I first cracked open my mother’s Bible. Being a good Baptist, she referred to what is now my favorite book in the Scriptures as Psalms, and in her KJV, it had chapters, as I recall.

Even on the occasional Catholic site, I still see an occasional reference that goes something like this, Psalms, Chapter 119, verse 176.

I thought those 150 “chapters” of the Psalms were impressive. Those 176 verses in “chapter” 119 even more so. Nothing quite like them in all the Bible.

In the Liturgy of the Hours, the 119th, as well as other long psalms are often broken up, if they are used at all. I made a chart years ago when I was a young man of the “long” psalms. If six verses in three stanzas is a standard size for a modern setting, I can’t imagine what it would take to set all of Psalm 119. One of my grad school classmates (a non-musician) thought I should attempt to set the whole thing. No thanks, I said. I tried to set a medium-sized 103rd as a song cycle. That didn’t quite go anywhere.

Last summer, I returned toa consideration of the long psalms, inspired by the chanting of the 104th at the Divine Office at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville. If memory serves, that’s a top-ten in number of verses.

Nothing’s come of that in terms of composition, but I did return to a longer psalm this past week in my adventures with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. The suggested readings to accompany week 13 (I’m a week behind on the liturgical harmonization.) are intended to draw the retreatant to a deeper appreciation of the “back story” of the Lord’s incarnation. Since I’ve recently completed Genesis in my daily Lectio, I didn’t want to return to old ground just yet. I wasn’t satisfied with Exodus 2 either. But a little nudge came on those long psalms and I remembered that two or maybe three of them recount the history of God’s chosen people.

Psalm 105. Perfect.

I decided to spend two or three days with this Psalm, immersing myself in it twice a day.

The first prayer period, I was struck by the cosmic length of time described in verse 8:

He remembers forever his covenant,
the word he commanded for a thousand generations.

A thousand generations: I know that’s not literal. But if it were, we wouldn’t be quite one-sixth of the way through it. Matthew’s geneaology gives forty-two from Abraham to the Messiah. Maybe we’ve had another eighty since.

It’s hard for human memory to stay faithful day to day, year to year. I can’t imagine what we human beings will remember in the cosmic ages to come. A thousand generations? That’s another ice age. Three times the length of recorded Western history. At least.

That long pilgrimage of the Genesis patriarchs is described with tenderness:

When they were few in number,
a handful, and strangers there,
Wandering from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another people,
He let no one oppress them … (Psalm 105:12-14a)

God seems unconcerned about starting small. And protecting us with devotion. Even in the telling of it in the long psalms. The 105th takes the singer, confidently, to the entry into the Promised Land. Not a bad place to land near Christmas, I think.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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